|Photo by D Sharon Pruitt |
From Wikimedia Commons
But clearly, despite particular readers' distress over Jaime's character, Outlander has been wildly successful. And this is where my second answer to the question comes from. As long as the characteristic doesn't prevent the hero/ine from fulfilling their genre obligations (i.e.erotic romance featuring a monk who is faithful to his vows), I think it's possible to pull off any trait--provided it fits the book's theme, the worldbuilding supports it and its negativity is balanced by equally attractive or sympathetic traits. This is especially true in speculative fiction where the world rules can vary so wildly, making all sorts of normally inappropriate behavior seem acceptable. There will be readers who put the book down over personal hot button issues, and some characteristics are a harder sell than others. But that doesn't make them impossible.
Unrepentant drug addict? Chess Putnam from Stacia Kane's Downside Ghosts series is one of my favorite heroines. Adulterer? Bridges of Madison County. Or Jay Gatsby (I have little sympathy for Daisy, but I fall in love with Gatsby every time I read F. Scott Fitzgerald's most famous work.) Sadistic mass-murderer? There should be no way. But then there’s Dexter. Or Hannibal Lector. The character that takes them all, in my opinion, is Alex from Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange. The uber-violent protagonist drugs and rapes children (in the book) as one of his many atrocities and later manages to elicit sympathy from the audience when the government stops him from raping and murdering. There are a lot of people who dislike it, but A Clockwork Orange is frequently considered one of the great science fiction novels of the twentieth century. Its hero breaks taboo after taboo then says something snarky and listens to some Beethoven and many readers give him a pass.
Woldbuilding, backstory and strong positive traits are key to making it work. Most books have heroes and heroines that, while best suited to the book they’re in, could show up in another novel and still be a likable person. But more extreme characters would rarely work taken out of their book and randomly inserted into another. Chess's world with zombie-like ghosts and an atheist church running the government is enough to drive me to pills, and her willingness to throw herself on the line for others makes her easy to root for. Jay Gatsby's past with Daisy in a world where money rules combined with his loyalty and devotion to her makes their affair forgivable. Alex may be a monster, but the society and government that spawned him is frequently worse. These things are all needed to help us sympathize with (or endure) these heroes' out-of-bounds characteristics and behavior.
On the other hand, while the occasional dip into the bizarre can be engaging, I wouldn’t want to spend my life reading only books whose heroes and heroines bend social norms to such an extreme. While I'm not sure there is anything impossible to pull off (again, given genre constraints), the set of characteristics I want to find in my typical curl-up-with-a-good-book hero/ine are far more limited in scope… but that’s another post entirely.
Jax Garren writes paranormal books based in myth and set in the modern world. Her new release, How Beauty Met the Beast, features Hauk, a hero with an unusual characteristic for a romance. No rakish scars for him (hello, Jay Ryan), he’s grotesquely disfigured from a fire. The adventures of Hauk and Jolie continue in How Beauty Saved the Beast, coming in February, and resolve in How Beauty Loved the Beast, coming in May. You can find Jax on the web, Twitter, Goodreads, and Facebook.